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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687) Armide 1778, Tragédie en musique sur un livret de Philippe Quinault
(adapted by Louis-Joseph Francœur (1738-1804))
Véronique Gens (soprano) – Armide
Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor) – Renaud
Tassis Christoyannis (bass) – Hidraot / la Haine
Chantal Santon Jeffrey (soprano) – Phénice / Lucinde
Katherine Watson (soprano) – Sidonie / une Naïade / un Plaisir
Philippe-Nicolas Martin (tenor) – Aronte / Artémidore / Ubalde
Zachary Wilder (tenor) – Le Chevalier danois
Chœur et Orchestre Le Concert Spirituel/Hervé Niquet
rec. April 2019, Arsenal Cité Musicale-Metz, France
In collaboration with the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles ALPHA 973 [137:08]
The story goes that after Lully’s original success with the opera Armide in February 1686, it was to run until 1766, when it was supplanted by later operas and neglected. Then along came Gluck, who in 1777 made his own setting of Philippe Quinault’s libretto; it was to become even more popular than Lully’s original. This led to a resurgence of Lully’s version. Louis-Joseph Francœur, the nephew of the composer François Francœur, was commissioned to produce a version of the opera that was more in tune with eighteenth-century sensibilities. Changes to the original included the wholesale cutting of the work’s Prelude, which glorified the king, and new orchestral sections and dances. Still, Francœur’s writing for woodwind is particularly fine, the story has not been affected, and the alterations seamlessly fit into the original score. It seems, however, that this version was never performed, so not only is this production the premiere recording but its first-ever performance. Perhaps this was down to the instant appeal of Gluck’s opera, which grew in popularity from its first performance.
Hervé Niquet made a wonderful recording of Persée (1770), in which three composers – Dauvergne, Rebel and de Bury – produced a new performing edition. It appeared on ALPHA 967. This is another remarkable performance. Chief amongst the plaudits must go to Véronique Gens. She shows that she is destined to play Armide. Her performance is flawless and characterful. Consider Armide’s Act I duet with Hidraot, Contre mes ennemis, à mon gré, je déchaîne. Her partner, Tassis Christoyannis, once again shows that he is an indispensable French bass, especially in this repertoire. Other soloists are equally well cast. Reinoud van Mechelen is a fine Renaud; his Act II Plus j’observe ces lieux, et plus je les admire is evidence that he a good foil for Véronique Gens’s Armide. Chantal Santon Jeffrey and Katherine Watson are fine too, and their sopranos are quite different than Gens’s voice. In fact, there are no weak links: the tenors Philippe-Nicolas Martin and Zachary Wild also show their dramatic prowess.
The chorus is a big part of the production. I am glad to say that the colourful performance of the choir of the ensemble Le Concert Spirituel proves that they are more than up to the task. The orchestra of Le Concert Spirituel gives great support. They once again show that they are one of the preeminent ensembles in the French baroque repertoire. Their wind playing is particularly fine, and their rasping natural brass adds to the performance. I have been a fan of Hervé Niquet for a long-time now. He directs this opera with great panache, and gives the work a sense of real presence. This is definitely a performance to enjoy and savour, especially as the presentation and crystal-clear sound dramatically add to the overall effect. The notes in French, English and German, with full text in French and English, appear in an 80-page hardback book with lavish illustrations. This is a clear winner.
Even so, I prefer Lully’s original, which I know in the recording by Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset (Aparté AP135). The Prologue is a feature of French opera of the period. The other alteration adds a little something but also detracts. There is a place for both versions on any operatic Francophile’s shelf, with enough differences between the two versions to keep your interest. Given a performance is as special as this, you should make room for both versions.